While we have to wait for the Seraiki or South Punjab province to be carved out from Punjab that requires much broader political consensus and constitutional amendment, Gilgit-Baltistan can be won, and it should win a provincial status without much further loss of time. It has been a very long wait for a territory and its people who believe they joined Pakistan, and must be extended full citizenship rights. The rights would include a provincial government, representation in the National Assembly and the Senate of Pakistan.
Over the past decade or so, impatience of the people of the formerly Northern Areas of Pakistan has grown with the governments of Pakistan. On my two visits, the last about eleven years back, people talked to me on trek, in the restaurants and in the buses about their frustration and disappointment over non-recognition of their legal and ethnic identity.
Diverse, as they are, many local and regional identities define them — Hunza, Nagar, Gilgit, Baltistan and Skardu. Many beautiful valleys, mountains, hills, streams, rivers, glaciers, peaks and deserts at the highest altitudes, add to the wonderful heritage of the globally acknowledged polite, civilised and hospitable people of the region.
No explanation of why their legal and political status has been in the limbo for the past 70 years has kept the people of Gilgit-Baltistan unsatisfied. They claim, and rightly so, that they were never, and are not people of Kashmir. Any conquest in the past by any raja of Kashmir or surrender of the territory by any colonial power cannot take away their birth right to claim their identity as people from Gilgit, Baltistan and Hunza. In my opinion, any claims contrary to their self-definition and claims for rights as full citizen of Pakistan, are frivolous and driven by narrow political and security interests.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have adequately reminded every government in Pakistan that they were the first to declare independence from the Maharaja of Kashmir and joined Pakistan without any coercion. We need to mention this to explain why this region has unnecessarily become entangled with the dispute regarding the formerly princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmir under the Maharaja was multi-ethnic, a princely kingdom in the making of which imperial sell-out and conquest had played a role. Never had the people of Gilgit-Baltistan identified themselves in any meaningful way with Kashmir and its ethnic undertones of Kashmiriat. Pakistan’s position on the region as a part of the disputed state has kept it in legal limbo for decades. And there has been a vocal political resistance from the parties and leaders of the Azad Kashmir against considering Gilgit-Baltistan as independent of the state.
The region’s separate identity is rooted in its history, its heritage, and more importantly in its ethnic identity, which is obviously very different from that of Kashmir. The geo-strategic and geo-economic importance of the region has greatly increased with the development of communication infrastructure beginning with the Karakorum highway — one of the great wonders of the world. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the proposed mega hydro-electric projects and industrial zones, will further integrate the region with national and regional economies.
The whole region is full of economic opportunities from expanding tourism to use of water resources for regional and national development. Granting it the status of a province and representation along with provincial autonomy will spur investment and development. More importantly, the people will have the satisfaction of their rights, autonomy, control over resources and formal recognition of all of it. This is the route to integrating Gilgit-Baltistan to the national mainstream.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 9th, 2018.